SALT AND FIRE * *
Starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Volker Michalowski and Lawrence Krauss. Written for the screen and directed by Werner Herzog.
Fifty years into an astounding career, Werner Herzog has earned the right to do whatever he wants, which is a good way of describing what a lot of his late-period pictures feel like: Werner’s whims. The director, who turns seventy-five this fall, is still so prolific it’s sometimes hard to keep up –he’s got another movie, Queen Of The Desert, also opening this weekend– but even when the films don’t work there’s a restless, exploratory spirit reminding you that you’re in the hands of a true original. Salt And Fire is one of the ones that doesn’t work.
Adapted by the director from a short story by Tom Bissell, the movie stars Veronika Ferres as the leader of a scientific delegation sent to South America in order to investigate a geological catastrophe dubbed “El Diablo Blanco” – a rapidly expanding salt flat poised to overtake the continent. Upon their arrival the crew is kidnapped by a ski-masked militia under the command of Riley (Michael Shannon) “the CEO of the consortium” that caused this environmental disaster.
One of Herzog’s fidgetiest pictures, Salt And Fire skips from one concept or idea to another so frequently and with such little rhyme or reason a viewer can almost envision the director just outside the frame losing interest and moving on every few minutes. Gael Garcia Bernal makes a strong initial impression as Ferres’ lecherous colleague, only to come down with diarrhea and abruptly disappear from the film. Even the menace of El Diablo Blanco is undercut by the introduction of Uturunku, a volcano we’re promised is about to cause an extinction level event and then is never mentioned again.
(A filmmaker friend of mine found the movie’s sense of creative freedom intoxicating, while I fell back on my usual argument that people have to actually sit through this stuff.)
Michael Shannon is a fascinating screen presence and the only one in the cast who finds a way to work with the bizarre, stilted dialogue, which consists mainly of philosophical aphorisms that sound like they came from a Werner Herzog Meme Generator. There’s a wheelchair-bound henchman played by crabby, real-life theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss –one of the more combative talking heads in Herzog’s documentary Lo And Behold last year—and for an actor let’s just say he’s one hell of a physicist.
And yet Herzog can’t help but shoot the heck out of all this nonsense. His eye for forbidding landscapes remains unparalleled, with the harsh, devastating beauty of the salt flats almost alone with the price of admission. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (who has been working with the director since 1995) here favors roving, circular shots that make even familiar, generic spaces like airports and plane cabins feel woozy and alienating.
Salt And Fire’s final reels rather arbitrarily strand Ferres with two blind children on a rock island in the middle of the white desert, and at long last all that ponderous dialogue falls away to simple matters of survival. The sequence is so compelling it’s almost worth sitting through everything that came before. Almost.